The Hollywood Version Of The Story

I made a passing comment about John Dillinger, the other day, and it reminded me that I really don’t know anything about that, except for what is in Public Enemies and other movies.

In Public Enemies we are shown early on that FBI agent Melvin Purvis is a cold-blooded badass lawman: he shoots a bad guy who is running away and drops him with a rifle shot in the back from about 200 yards. “Shot while trying to escape” – it’s how US law enforcement works. Running away is a death sentence.

When Dillinger was shot, he wasn’t caught by the FBI due to clever sleuth-work, he was sold out by someone who was aware of who he was, who negotiated to avoid her planned deportation by the government. In the end, she was deported, anyway. I’ve noticed that the FBI isn’t really great at catching criminals; they mostly rely on publicizing them, offering a reward (or calling on people do do their civic duty) and waiting. That’s how you get things like the UNABOMB task force taking 17 years with (at some points in time) 150 full-time investigators on the case.

The actual moment when Dillinger met his doom was a great big mess. Here is how wikipedia describes it:

When the film ended, Purvis stood by the front door [of the theater where Dillinger was watching a movie] and signaled Dillinger’s exit by lighting a cigar. Both he and the other agents reported that Dillinger turned his head and looked directly at the agent as he walked by, glanced across the street, then moved ahead of his female companions, reached into his pocket but failed to extract his gun and ran into a nearby alley. Other accounts stated Dillinger ignored a command to surrender, whipped out his gun, then headed for the alley. Agents already had the alley closed off.

Three men pursued Dillinger into the alley and fired. Clarence Hurt shot twice, Charles Winstead three times, and Herman Hollis once. Dillinger was hit from behind and fell face first to the ground.

That’s not at all like what’s represented in the movie. In the movie, there are about 10 FBI agents positioned around the theater door. Purvis is right in front of the door, wearing a brilliantly white linen suit. Dillinger leaves the theater along with the rest of the crowd and Purvis lights his cigar – the signal. The FBI men begin moving behind Dillinger and pulling guns. It’s pretty unsubtle – one of the agents is shoving through the crowd, pointing a gun at Dillinger as he tries to get closer. Finally, some of the crowd start to bolt away from the scene, into the street and Dillinger turns, reaches into his pocket – the FBI guys begin shoving the crowd violently then Purvis shoots him neatly in the back of the head and another FBI agent shoots him in the chest. Dillinger falls. That’s that.

So, it’s interesting – the FBI is portrayed as ambushing him and killing him without him fighting or threatening (he never pulls a gun); Purvis, once again, shoots a bad guy in the back with a single lethal bullet. I’m trying to figure out if that’s heroic.

I wonder if the FBI’s public relations people got involved in making the movie. Because there are some parts left out.

Two female bystanders, Theresa Paulas and Etta Natalsky, were wounded. Dillinger bumped into Natalsky just as the shooting started. Natalsky was shot and was subsequently taken to Columbus Hospital.

It doesn’t qualify as “a hail of bullets” but if 5 shots were fired, 2 hit Dillinger, 2 hit bystanders, that means the FBI’s marksmanship was pretty bad. As usual there isn’t any question about whether or not they could have avoided a gun-battle in a crowd. “Collateral damage” as usual. There are some gruesome details about the two bullets that hit Dillinger, and the location of the impacts is correct in Public Enemies. They got the scenario pretty right, in other words, except for the bystanders.

J. Edgar Hoover was a tremendous innovator, mostly in the realm of wedding police work to propaganda. He relentlessly promoted the FBI, and was the brains behind the early TV shows featuring FBI agents as the good guys. He certainly wouldn’t have allowed a movie to show the FBI as firing into a crowd and injuring bystanders. The citizens are where the funding comes from, after all.

150 investigators on the case? Yeah, right. I know it’s hard to catch people who are careful (unlike Dillinger) but that seems a bit like an exaggeration.


  1. lochaber says

    I can’t help but be reminded of this:

    I distinctly remember the initial reports implying the suspect was responsible for all of the injuries/casualties.

    And it was only later that it started to come out that a whole lot of people were shot by cops with bad aim, but that didn’t make the same headline status newsclippings.

    Just another reminder, that if you have a problem, and you call the police, now you have two problems…

  2. says

    Where were those “150 men” when Kavanagh’s sex crimes should have been investigated? Looking the other way, no doubt. Maybe they’re only interested when there’s an excuse to be trigger happy (e.g. Ruby Ridge).

  3. says

    Addendum: Is FBI approval of and participation in “Dillinger” any different than the US military in war movies (i.e. only when it makes them look good)?

  4. lochaber says

    I just recently watched “Burn After Reading” (I somehow missed it when it first came out, and just got around to it now as I’ve canceled my Amazon Prime Video account, and was looking for hopefully amusing movies to watch in the few days while I still have access…)

    And while watching it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this blog and our host’s perception of the U.S. “intelligence community”

  5. Ice Swimmer says

    The ideal: American soldiers and policemen cultivate a culture of marksmanship, making every shot count. The reality: Spray and pray.

    Maybe cops should be armed with single-shot pistols to wean them from shooting recklessly (I’m only half serious).

  6. says

    Ice Swimmer@#5:
    The ideal: American soldiers and policemen cultivate a culture of marksmanship, making every shot count. The reality: Spray and pray.

    There is something to be said for 6 shot revolvers.

    [For reasons I don’t know, Purvis is represented with a 1911 .45 semiautomatic, instead of a revolver. 8 shots instead of 6! I’m surprised the FBI didn’t have thompson guns with drum clips. Oh, and if you haven’t seen the Albert Finney tommygun scene in Miller’s Crossing the whole movie is a masterpiece.]

  7. says

    I just recently watched “Burn After Reading” (I somehow missed it when it first came out

    Me too! I was shocked to discover there was a Coen Bros movie I had missed.

    That’s as close to a documentary about CIA stupid as you can get. I loved it. Especially the way the agency is only concerned, really, with looking good and not getting in the news. Meanwhile, everyone is going nuts and the body count is rising. I also love the way that the CIA goons are just that: bureacrats who will kill to protect their jobs.

  8. says

    Addendum: Is FBI approval of and participation in “Dillinger” any different than the US military in war movies (i.e. only when it makes them look good)?

    I suspect so, yes. But I’m not sure what “looking good” means. The scene where Purvis shoots the runner (who is totally not a threat at the time) doesn’t make the FBI look particularly good unless the idea is: “look how smoothly we kill people!” They should have had Purvis at Ruby Ridge; he seems to have been a cooler shot than Horiuchi.

  9. lorn says

    As far as the modern FBI goes it may be helpful to remember that, by all reports, many agents are well steeped in conservative psychology. They tend toward linear thinking, hierarchies of power and control, and straight-up mechanical linkages (coercive and/or transactional) for interpersonal relations.

    Combine that with white supremacy (the FBI was always very white), misogyny, and the simple fact that criminology, from its origin, was focused on the ‘criminal mind’, and a series of supposed and assumed moral and mental defects, most of which were simply the results of poverty, educational and psychological neglect and no small measure of racism, and you get arrogance and smugness.

    As always. there is also the other side. John Dillinger wore distinctive clothing and paraded around in crowded places assuming he was safe. Human shields have a long history and Dillinger had previously got away with it. Something changed to rejigger the calculus. As I remember it Pervis was under pressure pressure from Hoover simply because the press were presenting Dillinger as a flamboyant folk hero and the FBI as bunglers. Hoover was very aware of the press and jealously guarded the reputation of the FBI.

    There may have also been civilian and/or law enforcement, possibly FBI, deaths blamed on Dillinger but my memory is foggy. As it was the risk to civilians was deemed acceptable as long as casualties were light and they got their man. Pervis signed off on the plan with an understanding that failure would see him taking the fall. Which is why he was there.

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